How to Build a Feminist Business

When I started my feminist blog Writing on Glass, one of the hardest parts was aligning my business choices with my values. Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about:
● I don’t believe in unpaid internships, but I needed help to scale my business and couldn’t afford to pay a wage. (Or so I thought!)
● I wanted the stock photos on my site to represent all types of women, but I had trouble finding sources for free, inclusive images. (I eventually found some.)
● I had an ambitious editorial calendar, and while I wanted my contributor base to be as diverse as possible, I got the most submissions from women who looked just like me.

I felt a clash. It was business growth vs. feminism, and I didn’t want to face that conflict.

Then I realized I didn’t have to. As a business owner, I could call the shots. I didn’t need to abide by the standards I inherited from my former corporate employers. And by changing the way I did business, maybe I could even change the way business was done.
After months of feeling stuck, I’m excited to share the revelation that helped me become a better feminist entrepreneur: Throw away the “master’s tools” and create your own.
One of my feminist icons Audre Lorde once said, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” When it comes to feminism and work, most businesses aren’t willing to make radical change. Instead, many corporations and even startups rely on conventional “quick fixes” to address problems that require fundamental shifts in perspective.

What do I mean?

Let’s say Corporation X realizes that women aren’t getting mentorship, so it starts a group lunch series to facilitate relationships. Great. But meanwhile, the company continues to rely on factories that exploit young girl laborers. Its male CEO depends on women for house cleaning, meal preparation, and childcare, but doesn’t pay fairly for this work he considers “low-value.”

See what I’m saying? Just tweaking the structures that already inhibit women won’t lead to radical change.

As an entrepreneur, you have a new kind of opportunity. You’re starting from scratch. You can build your own frameworks and define ethical business practices that align with your values. Jennifer Armbrust’s feminine economy is one fantastic example of what “dismantling the master’s house” might look like. She replaces traditional economic values like “profit worship” and “ends justify means” with alternatives like “sustainability” and “generosity.” What values do you want to place on your economic wheel? How will sticking to these values benefit your business and feminism at the same time?

Here’s my golden example. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t believe in unpaid labor. At first, I convinced myself than any financially smart business owner would ignore her qualms and take advantage of the booming market of smart, capable, and free college-aged interns. I could have offered mentorship, training, and other barter-like compensation. But it just didn’t feel right. I knew women suffered unfairly from the disadvantages of doing unpaid work.
So rather than view my intern as an expense, I chose to consider her contributions as leverage. With her time added to mine, I could provide more work to my consulting clients. And in providing more work, I could raise my rates -- which would have been less justifiable without two brains.

"Throw away the master's tools and create your own."

Because I was willing to pay, I was also able to:
1. Hire an intern with better skills and experience.
2. Hold her to a higher standard.
3. Earn her respect and trust.
4. Up my credibility as a business owner in the eyes of my clients.
5. Increase my own confidence in my ability to pay an employee.
6. Multiply the likelihood that other women who know their worth will be willing to work for me.

That, to me, was worth more than the money I would have saved by hiring a free intern. But even so, I did profit. In fact, I 3x’d my profit in 2 months with the extra time and womanpower I gained from bringing a talented worker onboard. Such is the beauty of building a feminist business.

It's time we all, as women founders, take heed to this VERY powerful message!

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Stephanie Newman runs the feminist blog Writing on Glass and the consulting firm Stellia Labs. If you enjoyed this post, you can subscribe for updates from Stephanie here.